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Celebrating All the Molly Pitchers

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Molly Pitcher loading cannon at Battle of Monmouth, 1778. Engraving by J.C. Armytage after Chappel, c1859. Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a45102

On June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, women brought aid to the wounded, assisted doctors as nurses, did laundry, made clothing, brought food and water to soldiers, brought more water to cool the cannons, and more. These were the most common tasks performed by the wives and families of the soldiers who followed the Continental Army.1 Martha Washington was there. During the war she acted as a secretary for George Washington, comforted the wounded, and helped organize fund-raising to supply the army. At least two women fought alongside the men openly as women. They are part of a larger story of the participation of women in the U.S. Revolution that will never be told in its entirety. Often what Americans know about women who fought is distilled in the story of a single legendary figure, Molly Pitcher.

According to legend, Molly Pitcher stepped in and took over firing a cannon at Monmouth when her husband was killed or incapacitated. The legend is so well known in New Jersey that there is a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named after her!  There’s only one problem with commemorating Molly Pitcher as a real-life, historical heroine: “Molly Pitcher” wasn’t anyone’s name, it was what the soldiers called out to the women when they needed water: “Molly, pitcher!”

The most common historical identity given to “Molly Pitcher” is Mary Hayes McCauley, then Mary Ludwig Hayes. According to the story she followed her husband, John Hayes, to the battle, bringing water to cool the cannon he was assigned to during the fighting. She helped the team firing that cannon, but the details on this vary.  Some have her loading the cannon, while others say she was firing it. She is said to have stepped in when her husband either collapsed or was wounded. A first-hand account of the battle by Private Joseph Plumb Martin describes the actions of a woman generally assumed to be Mary Hayes McCauley:

One little incident happened during the heat of the cannonade, which I was eye-witness to and which I think I would be unpardonable not to mention. A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece for the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky It did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.2

This sounds a bit like a story that might have been embellished a little in the telling, but it is the only eye-witness account we have. Martin does not say that her husband was incapacitated, but that she attended the artillery line the whole time. It may be this telling that became the kernel of the legend. John Hayes died after the war, as a result of wounds received in battle, and Mary then married George McCauley. Today there is a monument to Mary Hayes McCauley at the Monmouth battlefield site.

There was another woman on the battlefield that day who wore a uniform (and so does not match the description given by Martin), but who did not pretend that she was a man. Margaret Corbin with her husband, John Corbin, served in the same artillery regiment with Mary and John Hayes. Her husband was killed in the battle and she is said to have taken up his place on the firing line and was wounded. Margaret Corbin was the first woman in the U.S. to receive a pension on the basis of military service.3

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A young and feminine Molly Pitcher as imagined in 1905. “Why Can’t a Girl Be a Soldier?” sheet music by Roger Halle and John Nilan (cover only). Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.02991

In oral tradition stories and songs sometimes get mixed together, usually unintentionally. The story that is remembered and retold the most is not necessarily one that is the most true in terms of historical fact, but one that audiences respond to as having the elements they need or want to hear. The combination of a woman dressed as a woman and helping to fire a cannon, combined with a story of a woman taking her husband’s place when he fell, brings together the elements of these two stories to create a woman hero of the Revolution that, at least at some point, was the one that people favored.

Other women who served as soldiers in the Revolution include those who enlisted pretending to be men. Deborah Sampson Gannett (her maiden name is spelled as Sampson or Samson) is among the most famous of these. She was wounded twice before she was discovered to be a woman and honorably discharged. Her efforts to get a pension help us to understand why more women did not reveal their past in order to be paid. She needed to prove that she was a respectable wife and mother and had not continued to act outside of the socially accepted roles for women after the war, and this is known from letters that were sent in her support.4 She also gave lectures about her adventures, always including advice to young women not to make her mistakes but to keep to a woman’s proper sphere. Perhaps the ideal woman hero, Molly Pitcher, needed to be in battle wearing a skirt in order to fill a contradictory idea of a heroic woman who was still appropriately feminine.

And yet there has been a long-held romantic view of women who don trousers and take up the role of a soldier or sailor. Stories range from bawdy to heroic in the depictions of the women concerned. Ballads about such women were once common. These, too, provide a background for the creation of the legend.  Here are some examples of British ballads of the era that would have been known in America, made available by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress:

During the Revolution there was another depiction of an acceptably heroic woman. Martha Washington, who assisted at the Battle of Monmouth and some of the other battles her husband fought, is described in the song from the period, “Saw Ye My Hero, George?” She is not depicted doing the various tasks she actually did, but instead is asking after her husband and wringing her hands in the hope that he was not killed. This is the accepted social role for a woman (with the exception that the ideal woman would have been at home waiting for news instead of at the battle).

There is evidence that women thought about the war in ways that defied the social standard. An interesting document, available on the Library’s site from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is “The Sentiments of an American Woman,” published in 1780, two years after the battle of Monmouth. It is thought to have been inspired by the winter of 1777-78 when so many men were lost to exposure and illness. It was signed “An American Woman” but attributed to Esther de Berdt Reed, the wife of Pennsylvania Governor Joseph Reed. Far from encouraging women to remain in conventional roles, she evokes Roman women, St. Joan, and historical wars, recalling “… many famous sieges where women have been seen forgetting the weakness of their sex, building new walls, digging trenches, with their feeble hands, furnishing arms to their defenders, they themselves darting the missiles on the enemy….” De Berdt Reed used this to launch her women’s campaign to raise funds to better supply the army, which was taken up by many, including Martha Washington. Beyond that, it shows women of the era were well able to think outside of the expectations society normally had for them.

Here in the twenty-first century, when many of us would like more unedited facts about the deeds of women of the past, we are kept from that knowledge by the customs of the past that kept women silent. There are a few women for whom courage or necessity, or both, led them to seek pensions or speak out about what they did, and from these we can find out at least some portions of the truth. Perhaps more of this history will be shaken out of the documents available to provide a little more about the women of the Revolution. But when next you hear of Molly Pitcher, think of all the women who were active in the U.S. Revolution, for she represents them all.

Notes

1. An introduction to the common work of women during the U.S. Revolution can be found on the Colonial Williamsburg site: “Women’s Service with the Revolutionary Army,” by Kaia Danyluk.

2. Martin,Joseph Plumb, 1830. The Adventures Of A Revolutionary Soldier. Chapter IV, p. 96. Available online via Archive.org. It has also been published by Signet Reprints.

3. Teipe, Emily J. 1999. “Will the Real Molly Pitcher Please Stand Up?” Prologue, Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2. National Archives. (This article includes a helpful list of works among its footnotes.)

4. An example of a letter from Paul Revere on Deborah Sampson Gannett’s behalf is given in Teipe, Emily J. 1999 (above).